Monday, February 9, 2009

The Future of the Thrashers’ Defense: Part One - Strategy

The saying goes, “Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.” One of the most overused phrases in all of sports, but that doesn’t make the quote any less true. Nearly nine seasons down the road for the Atlanta Thrashers and exactly one slightly unimpressive championship: a Southeast Division championship in 2006-07.

The futility of the Atlanta hockey defensive system is one of the most well-documented complaints of the Thrashers fan base. There is tons of history to keep us whining and crying about goalies’ groins, pucks going in off defenseman’s heads (I’m looking at you Yannick Tremblay), falling down, not getting up, conceding the blueline and so on and so forth and so so and on fourth…. Get it? The Thrashers defense is bad and always has been.

In this post, I will attempt to explain some of the reasons as to why the current unit of Thrashers is struggling so mightily on the defensive side of things.

When goals are scored, especially in whopping amounts allowed by Atlanta (190, 30th-dead last in the NHL), the natural and also uninformed knee-jerk reaction is to blame the goalie. He’s guy that is allowing them, right? True, the puck beats the goalie… after it has beaten everybody else. The net-minder is the last line of defense.

A good defense starts with the forecheck. A great defense feeds of the forecheck. Personally, I believe in a two-man forecheck i.e. sending in two forwards into the opposing team’s defensive third. The Thrashers, in theory, also believe in a two-man forecheck, but Atlanta is inconsistent in the forecheck. The same positions, same responsibilities, suddenly become different on a line-by-line, shift-by-shift basis.

Now, I’m the first to rebel against a uniform system. Chances are if you like it, I don’t (unless I can turn you to the darkside!). But the Thrashers and any team system must be uniform. The parts, especially when factoring a team defensive philosophy, must be relatively interchangeable. This uniformity must be within reason. We all know that Ilya Kovalchuk is just not the defensive player that Colin Stuart is on the left wing, but that doesn’t relieve Ilya of his defensive responsibilities and position on the ice.

Ah, the first left wing mention, which brings us to the left wing lock. What’s this you might ask? The left wing lock is a defensive system, supposedly implemented by the John Anderson, to cut down opposing team’s speed entering the Thrashers’ defensive third and reduce odd-man rushes. For a decent explanation of the left wing lock, check this linky out (it’s wikipedia, so you know you are getting the best information!).

Does that sound like the Thrashers to you? I don’t think so.

Here is what Atlanta does, inconsistency not included… On the forecheck, the Thrashers send two forwards in. Good so far, right, here is where the good stops. These forwards (normally the center and the right wing) are supposed to stay relatively tightly spaced (an outstretched stick length apart) to keep passes from going through the middle of the ice. The idea is to force the first pass from behind the net to the side wall, near the circles.

The Thrashers, in most cases, come too far down into the zone as a group, stagger the forwards, and leave way too much space for opposing teams to easily use the middle. When Atlanta does force a pass to the half wall, the forward to that side converges on the puck carrier to force a pass. At this instance, the left wing, who has been playing a zone coverage in the middle of the ice (on the opposing teams’ half) will shift towards the wall, about halfway from the blueline to the redline, to cut off a pass to the middle.

The other forechecking forward will drift back to the blueline, away from the wall on the opposite side. The defenseman on the off side will step up from the blueline to take away the cross ice pass.

The Thrashers, rarely getting this far, get too aggressive in this set. The only forward that is supposed to go after the puck is the forechecking forward on the near side. Everybody else continues to play defense. Ideally, the puck carrier along the wall try and force a pass into the middle that creates a turnover. If he goes backwards, then the Thrashers can re-implement the first stages of the forecheck.

The keys to a healthy forecheck are as follows (in order): First, take away the middle of the ice for the first pass. Second, force the puck to the wall and keep it there. Third, create frustration passes and turnovers through timed aggressiveness. Timed aggressiveness meaning that the forecheckers have to use the right judgement as to when to pressure the puck. This can be an on ice read after a bobble or bad pass or it can be regimented to a certain part of the ice (like along the boards).

In all honesty, the Thrashers forecheck is undisciplined, lazy, and most of the players have mental breakdowns. Imagine a basketball team that uses a full-court press, but two or three of the players are out of position. Will that press work? To me, the forecheck is the most important part of the defensive scheme because it sets the tone for the game.

When looking at defense through the middle of the ice, without a solid forecheck in the left wing lock there is no reason to talk about the defense through the middle.

As we start to take a look at the back end, it is important to note some things off the rush. The Thrashers, as a team, concede the blueline far too easily. This is not the defenseman’s fault, but in fact the lack of a solid forecheck. If the Thrashers are beaten down the ice by the breakout of opposing teams, the failed forwards from the left wing lock are way behind the play.

This creates a rush, either two-on-to or odd-man. The Thrashers defensemen have to concede the blueline in this instance. When Atlanta defensemen such as Garnet Exelby or Mathieu Schneider do end up trying to make a play at the blueline and get beat (which is more likely than making a great defensive play), then the hapless defender is left with one out of position defenseman, three forwards behind the play, and three offensive players on the rush with time and space. The result is going to be high quality scoring chances and goals. Without fixing the forecheck first, the only way to combat this problem is to change the entire way the Thrashers play defense… which may not be a bad idea.

So, if the theme here isn’t obvious enough, the primary task of the Atlanta Thrashers at this point is to fix the forecheck. In my professional experience, I’ve found that coaches can be extremely stubborn when dealing with their system. So, the personnel has to change. The addition of Rich Peverley was a great pickup for Anderson’s system, but guys like Spencer Machacek, Riley Holzapfel, and Jordan LaVallee could all be very valuable assets to the Thrashers system

In part two, we’ll look at the personnel that the Thrashers have and need to improve the team defense.


  1. Fantastic point on the systems. Looking forward to part two. The thing I've noticed: some of the vets have difficulty going against years of ingrained patterns from previous coaches/systems/etc. Between that and everyone's default "pass/shoot" setting switched to "pass", we get the team we have. Great blog.

  2. Check out my latest post on my blog. I touch on a few Wolves that should come up, but Holzamachavallee does make up a line, and is an awesome one at that.

    I've noticed that most of the improving players are the ones that have played Anderson's system before, and that may be why our AHL call-ups have impressed us for the most part. Even Todd White played under Anderson once upon a time. It's a hell of a system, and you see that when the right players are playing it and trust is built.

    There is SO MUCH within reach that will work with Anderson next year. Prospects, our 1st rounder, some oldie moldies finding the exit. His system requires youth, speed, and most of all trust. This is why Peverley works with it, this is why our call-ups work with it, that's why Bogosian is working with it.

    The missing pieces to the puzzle (that is the Atlanta Thrashers) are right under management's nose.